LOS ANGELES -- If it felt like the good old days again in Lakerland -- the top seed in the Western Conference playoffs, appearing in the marquee Sunday afternoon broadcast network slot, breezing to a comfy opening victory -- it's because L.A. got back to the foundation that made its franchise great.
The names and giant jerseys high up the southern side of Staples Center bear witness to the Lakers' legacy. Sure, there's Baylor and West and Magic, but the collection of centers is unmatched: Mikan, Chamberlain, Abdul-Jabbar. And, of course, Shaquille O'Neal is never too far from people's minds here. (Lakers coach Phil Jackson couldn't resist taking a shot at his old center when asked if he was worried about the Lakers struggling with an early tip-off time as they have in the past. "No, Shaq's in Phoenix now," Jackson said.)
Shaq's a Sun, Pau Gasol's the new Lakers center and for at least one playoff game, the tradition lived on. The opener of this Western Conference first-round series was Gasol's game. He had 36 points, 16 rebounds, eight assists and three blocked shots -- game-high totals in each category -- as the Lakers rolled past the Denver Nuggets 128-114.
One of the things the Lakers have loved about Gasol since he arrived in that near-felonious trade with Memphis in February is his versatility.
"He's long, he can finish and he can run," Lakers forward Luke Walton said. "That type of player on this team, with the guys we have, the playmakers we have, that makes it very dangerous."
Today the Lakers asked him to be the center -- figuratively -- of their offense.
"That's fine," Gasol said. "I've been the focal point on every team I've been on for the last eight years. That's just the way it's been. I've been comfortable with that. I've been successful sometimes, sometimes I haven't been that successful. Right now I'm in this position, I'm enjoying it, every guy on our team can do an amazing job. I'm just one of them."
Before Sunday, Gasol's best had never been enough to win a single game in three previous trips to the playoffs with the Grizzlies. But as Kobe Bryant said, "This just ain't Memphis."
Here he has Bryant to handle scoring duties and Lamar Odom -- who's becoming nearly impossible to stop from posting double-digit rebounds -- to help on the boards. And Gasol actually has it better than O'Neal did in that Bryant draws the attention these days. It used to be when you'd look at the board in the opponent's locker room, the first two or three topics were about Shaq. Now game plans are devised for Bryant.
"You can direct where they're going to beat you at," Nuggets coach George Karl joked before the game.
I think having Pau in the mix and Lamar playing the way that he's playing makes it a lot easier where I can have a half where I don't really score the ball.
-- Kobe Bryant
The Nuggets selected the 7-foot Spanish poison.
They threw 6-foot-9 Kenyon Martin on Bryant. They tried a box-and-one against him. They regularly sent a second defender his way.
"I just made myself more of a decoy and then allow my teammates to open up the game for me," Bryant said. "I think having Pau in the mix and Lamar playing the way that he's playing makes it a lot easier where I can have a half where I don't really score the ball."
Odom has settled into his third-option role so well, he's producing double-doubles with regularity. He had 17 points and 14 rebounds Sunday, to go with eight assists.
It's not often that a 32-point game by Kobe Bryant is an afterthought, but Bryant wasn't really the story here. The Lakers got off to an early 21-11 lead with Bryant contributing only two points. They made their big push to put Denver down by 19 points in the third quarter while Bryant was on the bench. But before he checked out, he served notice that he'd be available should the situation get dicey by hitting a hanging jumper while fouled for the and-one.
"Don't worry about it," Bryant told the Lakers fans sitting courtside. "I got it."
He was much more in control than the Nuggets, who racked up a flagrant foul and four technicals, including two quickies on Allen Iverson that got him ejected with two minutes left in the fourth quarter.
The only time the Lakers didn't have this game in hand was when Gasol didn't have the ball. The Lakers became infatuated with 3-point shots in the second quarter, missing 5-of-7 and allowing the Nuggets to take an eight-point lead. Linas Kleiza did most of the damage, scoring 10 of his 23 points in the quarter, and showing that the Nuggets might have made a good call in refusing to part with him during trade talks for Ron Artest.
(Artest was sitting on the baseline near the Nuggets' bench Sunday. He said he still hasn't decided whether or not to opt out of his contract -- "My agent doesn't want me to," he said -- and not to read anything into his proximity to the Nuggets).
Once the Lakers went back to Gasol, order was restored.
"[The Nuggets] play passing lanes and block shots, they run out and they do an extremely good job of doing that because it creates easy baskets for them," Jackson said. "But if you're patient and you work the ball, you can change sides of the floor, you can find a way to get the ball inside and get easy baskets."
"They did an excellent job of finding [Gasol] around the basket," Martin said. "He had 36 points and I think he took one or two jump shots the entire game."
Gasol has been such a seamless fit that you wonder if the Lakers would want to interrupt the good combination he and Odom have formed by rushing Andrew Bynum back. (The Lakers still don't have a timetable for his return, only indicating that he isn't close.) Gasol seems to have found his way, as evidenced by his choice between the high chair used by Jackson and his problematic hips in the news conference room, or another, shorter seat.
"Nah," Gasol said as he tried Jackson's throne.
"That'll work," he said as he settled in behind the adjacent table.
Like Goldilocks, he and the Lakers seem to have found something that's just right.
J.A. Adande is the author of "The Best Los Angeles Sports Arguments." He joined ESPN.com as an NBA columnist in August 2007 after 10 years with the Los Angeles Times. Click here to e-mail J.A.